This week we kick off a brand-new teaching series called, A Heavy Load. So often, as we go through this life, we seek to do it on our own. We try and solve our own problems. We overcome our own challenges. We bear our own burdens. And at least in this culture, we’re taught to do just that. If you can’t manage your own stuff, what good are you anyway? But doing life on our own gets heavy after all. The weight of it all can begin to drag on our lives in all kinds of ways that add up and have an impact over time. The better approach is to quit trying to do life on our own and start doing it with Jesus. Over the next five weeks we are going to look at four specific loads we try and bear on our own, why that doesn’t work, and why doing life with Jesus is better. Then, in the final part, we’ll explore just why exactly life is so much better with Jesus. You won’t want to miss a single part of this conversation. Thanks for reading and sharing.
All Fired Up
I want you to do some remembering with me for just a minute this morning. I want you to think back to the last time you were genuinely angry about something that did not impact you directly and over which you had no control. If that seems oddly specific, there’s a reason for it which we’ll get to in a little bit. I’m not thinking about that time you saw something that was mildly irritating on one social media platform or another. I’m talking about the time you were angry – really and truly angry – but the object of your ire was not something that was having any sort of a direct impact on your life, and you weren’t really able to meaningfully do anything about it anyway.
What was it that made you so angry? Did your sports team lose on some play that you clearly could have coached or even played better than the guys who were actually involved? Was it a politician expressing a viewpoint you not only don’t share, but with which you vehemently disagree? Was it a gross injustice happening to someone in some other part of the world? What was it? More than that, though, how did you handle your anger? Did you snap at your family? Did you sulk around your coworkers? Did you fire off an angry social media rant?
I’m not sure whether or not you’ve noticed this, but our culture has been angry lately. No matter what the issue is nowadays, it feels a bit like anger is the only tool in our toolbox anymore.You pick what the situation may be. Someone is arrested and things don’t go as smoothly as they normally do. Anger. The markets drop like a stone. Anger. Politicians are fighting over a major foreign or domestic policy issue. Anger. Covid infection rates go up. Anger. Covid infection rates go down. Anger. Schools continue wrestling with the best approach to keep students safe while fostering a genuine learning environment. Anger. Three of our most significant holidays are right around the corner. Anger. Congress acts. Anger. Congress doesn’t act. Anger. The line is longer than usual at the grocery store which didn’t have any of the products you were searching for on the shelves anyway. Anger. Prices are higher than usual…everywhere. Anger. Anger, anger, anger. What’s wrong with us?
And it’s not just anger that’s all around us either. We live in a world of uncertainty and it seems to be going up all the time. More and more it feels like where we aren’t angry about that, we’re afraid of it. The division between the haves and the have-nots is greater all the time. Rather than being content with and grateful for what we do have, though, we are encouraged to be envious of one another. Many folks today live their entire lives on social media, and yet as a people we are lonelier than we’ve ever been. Real community and friendships are getting harder and harder to find. Why is this? Why are we in this place as a culture? Why are our neighbors and friends and family members…and us…struggling with life in ways you used to see occasionally, but only from folks whose lives were genuinely a mess? Again I ask: What’s wrong with us?
Starting this morning and for the next few weeks, I’d like to suggest an answer to that question. It is an answer that will sound at first to many of you to be completely obvious…but that’s because you’re coming at it from the perspective of being inside the church and already a committed follower of Jesus. For folks outside the church or who claim no such identity, though, this will seem anything but obvious. In fact, it seems to them to be downright counterintuitive. The answer I’m going to give is what we are going to be exploring together between now and Thanksgiving in a brand-new teaching series called, A Heavy Load.
Here’s the answer: The reason we are experiencing these kinds of symptoms as a culture is because we are more and more consistently attempting to do life apart from a relationship with Jesus. Isn’t that just like something a preacher would say? The problem with our culture is a lack of Jesus. But it’s more than just that (although it isn’t less than that). We are increasingly operating on the basis of a worldview – a set of answers to life’s big questions along with the implications of those answers – other than the Christian worldview. Now, this doesn’t simply mean that if everyone would start going to church everything wrong with us would magically be better. But a relationship with Jesus offers us something that any other worldview (and specifically the worldview animating our culture right now) doesn’t. It offers us a way of handling these hard emotions that doesn’t leave us mired in a mess. The truth is, trying to do life apart from a relationship with Jesus makes life heavier than it needs to be. To put that another way, life without Jesus is a heavy load. Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to talk with you about four specific loads we try and carry without Him. Then, in the final part of the series, we are going to talk about how much lighter and sweeter life with Him can be. If you know of folks who are struggling through life in one way or another – or if you are struggling through life in one way or another yourself – and you are feeling weighed down by it all, this is a series you will not want to miss.
As for this morning, I want to pick back up where we left off just a second ago. As we go through our lives, one of the heaviest burdens we try and bear when we do life without Jesus is anger. Even when we are doing life with Jesus, though, situations of anger are ones we are far too quick to try and manage on our own. After all, being angry doesn’t seem like a very holy emotion. We want to give our best to Jesus, and when we are angry we are very rarely at our best. So, instead of getting His help in dealing with it, we try and manage it on our own. The kick is: trying to manage anger on our own rarely goes very well. So, what do we do instead?
To answer this, come with me to the New Testament letter we call James. We call it that because it was written by James. This particular James was not one of the two disciples bearing that name. Rather, this was Jesus’ half-brother. That’s right: Jesus’ brother. That right there is actually one of the strongest arguments for why we should take seriously what James has to say. It’s also a pretty effective argument for believing Jesus rose from the dead. Here’s why: What would your brother have to do in order to convince you He was the Messiah? We know from what Mark reported in his Gospel that Jesus’ family – which would have included James – once thought He was sufficiently crazy and an embarrassment to the family that they tried to take Him home by force so He couldn’t bring anymore dishonor to the family name. Yet by the time he wrote his letter, James was fully convinced not only that Jesus wasn’t crazy, but that Jesus – his brother – was his Lord. If James could be convinced of that, then we had better pay attention to what he has to say because he’s going to be telling us the truth.
In any event, the first chapter of James’ letter finds him establishing the themes he’s going to address over the course of the rest of it. The three major themes are the endurance of various trials, wisdom, and wealth versus poverty. He touches on each theme twice over the course of the chapter. In his second pass on the theme of wisdom, James says something of which we would do well to take note. Look at this with me starting at James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works – this person will be blessed in what he does.”
Now, starting at v. 21 there, James is essentially offering an application of what he says in vv. 19-20 which basically amounts to: make sure and put this into practice. If you hear something God has said, but don’t put it into practice, you’re no better than a guy who looks at himself in a mirror and promptly forgets what he looks like. Your memory is so porous it’s a wonder you have a memory at all. If you hear something God says, you need to put it into practice because He’s said it for your benefit. In v. 19 there, though, James says something that should get our attention in light of what we’re talking about this morning. He said that followers of Jesus – because he is talking directly to the church; that being said, this is pretty generally applicable wisdom, so even if you wouldn’t claim to be a follower of Jesus, it’s probably something you’ll want to at least consider adopting in your own life – should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
How often do we do just the opposite? We go first to anger and then sort out whether or not we should have done that. Yet when we get this order reversed from how James lays it out for us, what does that actually accomplish in our lives? Well, a lot of anger. A fair bit of hurt and frustration. Broken and fractured relationships are usually somewhere in there. In other words, it pretty well just makes a mess. And yet we keep going back there. We keep leaning into anger. It’s like we’re angry as our baseline emotion and whatever other emotions we may have, we may experience in full, but we are eventually pulled back to our foundation of anger.
Why is this? Why are we so angry? I mean, there’s always a reason for anger. Emotions are simply responses to the environments we are in. Now, those responses are conditioned by a number of different factors, but at their heart, emotions are reactionary. Anger always has a reason. There’s always a spark that ignites the blaze. The trouble is, what we sometimes think is the spark isn’t really the spark at all. Oh, it may be the proximate cause of the blaze, but this is only because it happened to land on a pile of kindling that had been soaked in diesel fuel. The real source of the anger is not the spark, but whatever caused the fire to be laid in the first place. Given that, why is this particular emotion so prevalent in our lives and in our culture?
At a glance, there would seem to be no shortage of things to blame. Covid, politics, schools, shortages, life. But can I suggest something else as the cause of our anger? Something that rings pretty true to what James told us there in v. 19? All those other things and more like them are certainly the sparks that set us off, but they didn’t cause the fire to be laid in the first place. I think the roots of our rage lie much deeper than that. I submit to you that a significant part of the reason we are angry all the time is information. Information? Wouldn’t information make anger issues better? After all, when you have all the facts about something, you’re not nearly as likely to be angry about it as you are otherwise. Well, that may be true, but not in this case. Let me explain.
Modern media in whatever form you want to think about it right now absolutely bombards us with information all the time. When something of even the remotest significance happens on the other side of the world, we know about it almost instantly. All it takes is one person to upload a picture of it to Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or to make an observation about it on Twitter, and the whole world knows. Now, in one sense, that’s not a bad thing. From the standpoint of followers of Jesus, learning quickly about the struggles our brothers and sisters in the faith are having on the other side of the globe gives us an incredible opportunity to join in the work God is doing in and around them by praying for them. It doesn’t seem that should be making us angry. Well, it’s not.
The anger lies not in the specific stories, but in the general nature of the vast majority of the stories we hear and our proximity to those stories. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you hear a story about a family in Poland facing losing their home because of Covid. They didn’t do anything wrong themselves. They did everything they could, but the father died from the virus, and the mom lost her job at a local restaurant that had to shut down, and the government won’t help her with her bills until she gets back on her feet.
How are you going to react to a story like that? Well, given the injustice of it, it’s probably going to make you a little angry on behalf of this poor family. That’s not a bad thing. Stories about injustice should make us angry. That’s part of God’s character being reflected in ours thanks to our being created in His image. That’s a good thing. Well, that may be how you rightly react to the story, but what can you actually do about it? Yes, you could pray about it. That’s another good thing. But what else can you do about it? What can you do to alleviate the immediate felt needs and address the justice issues at play? What’s more, let’s say you’re not a follower of Jesus and don’t have prayer as an outlet available to you at all. What can you do now? Practically speaking, nothing. Not a single thing. It is a story of a deep injustice about which you cannot do a single thing.
Now, if you were to hear one story like that, you’d be upset about it for a while, but you’d move on and get back to focusing on your own circle of influence, making an impact there in the name of the kingdom of God. But let’s say you quickly hear about another story of injustice. And then another. And another. In fact, as you scroll through your news feed or pay attention to the news ticker at the bottom of whatever cable news channel you are watching, you are greeted by one story of injustice after another, apparently without end. When we heard about the first injustice, we got angry, but because we couldn’t do anything about it, we put that anger down at the bottom of our anger well and went on with life. No big deal. When we heard about the next story, we did the same thing with the same effect. The same goes with the next story. Eventually, though, that anger well inside of us starts to fill up. Now, as long as we can keep the anger in our well, things are fine. But as it gradually fills to the brim and even goes a bit beyond that, eventually one of those anger drops isn’t going to stay in the well. It’s going to spill out. It’s going to spill out and it’s pretty likely to take a whole lot of those other anger drops with it. And the thing is: there’s no telling when this point will come. Maybe it happens at an appropriate time when we can express all this anger in healthy and reasonable ways with someone who will listen carefully and help us process through it. But maybe it comes when someone cuts in front of us at the grocery store, or our kids act like kids, and suddenly they are treated to a whole flood of anger that doesn’t have anything to do with their rudeness and everything to do with a whole bunch of other situations over which we don’t have any control.
Most of our news nowadays isn’t local. Stories of local injustices are things you and I can do something about. That’s why communities like this one are so valuable. People care about one another and when something unjust happens to one member of the community, the rest of the community can rise up to put a stop to it. But when all we hear about are injustices on the state, national, or international level, we’re stuck endlessly dripping anger drops in our anger wells with no easy way to release it. Most folks today have been living on a steady enough diet of national and international news that their anger wells are all filled up. There’s no room for anything else. But the news keeps coming.
The results of this situation are very much in line with what we are seeing all around us: A whole lot of people who are angry all the time about everything. They’re always looking for something to be angry about and the next injustice they find just makes them angrier. Anger begets rage which begets more anger and the cycle continues. And the thing is: When we’re angry, we don’t necessarily make good and wise decisions that will result in grace and goodness being multiplied in the lives of the people around us. Angry people don’t very often love their enemies – that is, the objects of their fury – like Jesus did and calls His followers to do. They respond to what they perceive as offensive in kind rather than with kindness which merely invites the other party to do the same, and the contagion continues to spread.
So then, what do we do about all of this? Well, a pretty good place to start is just what I told you a few minutes ago. James gives us a clear pathway out of this mess here. We must – not merely should, but must – learn to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We have reached the point that instead of listening and thinking before reacting, the anger boiling over inside of us from the weight of injustice we are confronted with all the time along with the natural selfishness we’re dealing with anyway lead us to react quickly and without thought whenever we are provoked in even the slightest amount. Social media and its calls for instant reactions to everything makes this even worse. When you get mad about something and go to post about it on social media, you need to think four times about whatever it is that you’ve written, and then delete it altogether until you’ve had a chance to have a calm, rational conversation with someone else who’s more clear-headed on the issue than you are in the moment. The reason for this is simple and is what James told us in v. 20: Human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Anger may occasionally lead to actions that generate meaningful solutions to a problem, but anger is never a solution in and of itself.
Let’s make that more personal: Your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does. Remember: when you and I were steeped in sin and living in open, ugly rebellion against God’s rightful and sovereign authority, He didn’t come and smite us in His anger. He sent His Son to die in our place to pay the price our sin demanded so that we could be in a right relationship with Him, our sins forgiven entirely. That’s kindness. Jesus was compassionate and kind with sinners. His only harsh words were for the folks who insisted they alone were righteous and the scum around them needed to get with the program. When it came to the “scum,” Jesus was gentle. He raged against injustice, but tenderly loved people impacted by it, and never used His anger as a club. Instead, He used love as a means of effecting change. Indeed, your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does.
That’s all well and good, but what can you actually do about this? How can you put James’ words here into practice? I’m glad you asked. I want to give you five suggestions for some practical things you can do today to make a difference in the world around you on this matter. Now, it may not seem in the beginning like you are making much of a difference. Sitting quietly while everyone around you screams and rages about everything doesn’t really seem to reduce the volume all that much. But if we will put these things into practice consistently, and if the people around us begin to take notice (which they will if we put them into practice consistently) and make some changes themselves, eventually things will start to look and feel differently.
First, listen longer. To the extent that you are able, don’t ever offer a “quick take” reaction to anything. Even when someone asks you for it, learn to say, “Let me think on that first.” In the heat of a moment – especially when you’re being fueled by anger – your gut reaction is probably not the one you want to go with. Angry words held back for the sake of wisdom will never be missed by the people who’ve never heard and been hurt by them. Your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does.
Second, spend less time on social media and watching mainstream news outlets. Just turn them off. Your life won’t be any poorer for it. In fact, it will likely be a great deal richer. There is a research-based connection between the amount of time a person spends on social media and the amount of anxiety and depression that person experiences. Don’t be a statistic. Be different. Now, this doesn’t mean that you check out and remain unaware of what’s going on around you. You need to be informed about the goings on of your community and world so you can pray over them. But getting all your news from a single source will skew your view. Modern news channels know angry people are more likely to tune in and so they do everything they can to keep you enraged. Don’t buy in to their tactics. You’re better off having real conversations with real people anyway. They’re not as likely to make you angry. Your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does.
Third, invest more in rediscovering your own community. Get involved in serving where you live. Find ways to make an impact by service here. Have your neighbors over for dinner. Organize a fun community event. Subscribe to and read the local paper. Learn what the needs are in your proverbial backyard, find out who around you is committed to meeting them, and join in their efforts. If there isn’t anyone, that may be God’s invitation to you to start something new. When the primary injustices you encounter are all local, you don’t have to simply be bothered by them. You can help to solve them. That will give you a really effective control valve for your anger well. Your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does.
Fourth, don’t turn to anger with people who don’t agree with you on this or that issue. Instead, turn to curiosity. Anger doesn’t solve problems. It usually just creates them. Diatribes don’t solve problems either. If you finish making your point to another person or online and you feel like you should do a mic drop…you probably didn’t accomplish anything positive or meaningful. Get to know personally people whose opinions you don’t share…even those whose opinions you hate…and make friends out of them.
FIfth, get involved in serving others through the church. This is where the real power for transformational change lies. And this is not just change in the world around you. It can cause a change in you. So many of our reactions to the world around us have more to do with us than with the world around us. When you have made a positive change in yourself (with the Spirit’s help), you will have made the most direct contribution you can possibly make to seeing the world become a little brighter a place than it was before. The most important change is letting Jesus in. The second most important change is helping someone else do that. After all, your anger doesn’t solve problems; God’s kindness does. And when you’ve embraced Jesus, God’s kindness can be unleashed through your life into the world around you. That will make your load lighter. Life without Jesus is heavy. If we’ll let Him, He’ll help us lighten the load.